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Controlling The Narrative: Chronicle Coffee Furthers Change In North St. Louis

The corner of Grand and Cook Avenue in North St. Louis is pretty ordinary –  there’s a church on the corner, a gas station across the street, a drugstore in the distance, and a public service building that takes up most of one right side. But if you turn right at the blowing flags that say “coffee shop, you’re  led to a spacious, glassed-in venue that serves lattes, pastries, and sandwiches. Since its grand opening in February, Chronicle Coffee has been on a mission to write a new chapter for the Covenant Blu neighborhood by creating community and encouraging service. 

African American owner Jason Wilson has heard his share of both praise and opposition over the price, the location – and of his chosen business.

“There’s people who say things like ‘What’s this African American doing owning this coffee shop?” and stuff like ‘A coffee shop on the north side? Why would you do that?’ says the 40 year old entrepreneur. “I’ve been dealing with this since I was a young boy. I’m dealing with it.”

Wilson was born and raised in St. Louis. He was inspired to give coffee a try while traveling with his Washington University MBA class to China in 2007. He enjoyed the community and conversation that accompanied the brew, and began his own anthropology project of sitting in coffee shops around St. Louis and observing the scene.

“I started to like it,” he says. But it became evident that the best shops were located on the south side of town. “I said ‘Man, we should do this on the north side.’ Somehow, some way why aren’t underserved communities getting coffee shops?” So I put a plan together and here I am.”

After researching the coffee culture off and on for two more years, he created a business plan that he felt would add to the sustainability of the community.

Wilson purchased the St. Louis branch of the Northwest Coffee Roasting Company, which includes shops in the Central West End and Clayton, last year.

The other two stores will still keep their identities but Chronicle is up to something different.  Just a few years ago the neighborhood received a nearly eight million dollar grant as part of the Blumeyer HOPE VI Revitalization Plan. New homes and buildings were created, including the St. Louis Housing Authority Office Building. Retail space was created in the back of the building, and Chronicle Coffee moved in last summer. “We start putting money on this side of town, and me being a not-nonprofit company, I think other folks will follow, ‘cause people know about coffee, coffee is a great platform.”

The shop has a rotation of newbies and regulars that pass through, including Eric Johnson, a 53 year old retiree who lives in the area.

He visits Chronicle Coffee every morning and appreciates the friendly staff and the central location, and hopes the area will benefit from more future development. “It’s a very good asset to the neighborhood because they’ve never really had anything like that in the neighborhood,” he says. “Business seems to be booming to me every morning I’m up in here.”

He appreciates the friendly staff and the central setting, with the hope that it will benefit from more potential development. Though he hast heard some neighborhood opposition to the price of a cup, which runs around $2, but that’s normal, he says. “You know everybody can be a little tight when it comes to a dollar…but to each his own. Plus they give you these coupons for 15% off, so you can’t beat that – that’s a start.”

Tom Schweitzer comes by the shop on Tuesdays and Thursdays after making school rounds as part of his job with the Summit Leadership Initiative. He sees the location as a plus, and feels a kinship in the environment. “People look over to the person at the next table and say ‘Hey, what brings you here, what are you working on?’ or ‘Gee, I’ve seen you here the last three weeks, I’d like to introduce myself.’ It has a great sense of community – I think that’s it. Like ‘Cheers,’ – everyone knows your name.” he says.

The 63 year-old St. Louis native hopes that others will give Chronicle the opportunity to help them feel the same way.

“Every time someone walks in they’re always surprised that they never knew it was here and how it’s such a good idea and it’s such a relief that something like this is in the neighborhood,” he reiterates. “I like the vibe and everyone seems supportive.”

Wilson wants to make Chronicle Coffee a part of the community by hiring people from the neighborhood to work in the shop, hosting small events, and creating an internship program with students from Beaumont High School and Clyde C. Miller Career Academy. He’s also in the middle of creating his own roast. It’s a large and admirable ambition, but some who have tried it before know that it’s not easy.

In 2009, then-Washington University grad student Claire Wolff co-created the Urban Studio Café in Old North.

Their purpose was simple, she says: “Basically a nonprofit café and all of the profits from coffee and food sales would fund art programs and community programs for the neighborhood.”

They hosted art shows, had live music performances, and employed neighbors from the community, but their business experience was lacking. Changes were made in management, but fiscal agent Grace Hill Settlement House pulled out, and Urban Studio Café closed in February 2011.

Though the nonprofit idea didn’t work, Wolff, who now works at the Old North Restoration Group. feels that the café helped to demonstrate the potential profitability for other businesses in Old North. “Just the positive effects of having a gathering space in the community where neighbors can come and build that social fabric in and of itself is a huge social benefit,” she says.

By adhering to the shop’s “controlling the narrative” philosophy, Wilson thinks he won’t be the only business of its type in the neighborhood for long. He hopes that others will follow his lead and take a chance on an old-new neighborhood.